Hello, all. Well – obviously, it’s more than halfway through August and I’m just now posting the July reads. I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath, but sometimes a gal has to enjoy the poolside reading more than the fluorescent-lit blog-posting.
Anyway, I finally made it, so here goes. Statistics on July: six books; three fiction, three non; five male authors, one female; five white, one Japanese (if you take issue with this particular distinction, chat at me). Anyway, less diverse than I usually hope for, but sometimes one just gets carried away on the tidal wave of hegemony. In order:
Hunger – Knut Hamsun
7 / 10
Never in my life had I heard of this book – until reading Karl Ove, a fellow Norwegian to Hamsun. Knausgaard’s obsessive cataloguing of his own influences (books, music, &c) is, to someone like me, rather more honest (and convenient for fanatical fan-retracing) than indulgent. Over the past year, I then had an additional few people whose opinions I trust very much recommend Hunger, one of whom was kind enough to let me borrow it. Hunger is often compared to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, a comparison I found to be uncannily accurate throughout my reading – until Wikipedia informed me that the Russian author “was one of Hamsun’s main influences.” At this point, it’s difficult to give Hamsun much credit for originality, as Hunger so closely resembles Underground in its quantifiable particularities as to border on plagiarism.
Nevertheless, I actually enjoyed Hunger significantly more than Underground, perhaps because the title affliction lends the narrator more sympathy than the essentially intolerable narrator of Dostoevsky’s work. At least, at this point in my post-collegiate experience, I found Hamsun’s clearly autobiographical descriptions uncomfortably visceral. Oddly, for an author so professedly interested in the psychological, a significant amount of the book deals with human physicality. But beyond this, we feel for this narrator, whose philosophical wanderings are natural, relatable, and less proselytizing than those of the narrator in Underground. The crucial factor in Hamsun’s successfully interesting voice is the quite pervasive humor with which the narrator perceives much of his situation. The witty interior dialogue resulting from his crazed and disenfranchised situation reflects kindly on the sort of person who can maintain this slant, and on Hamsun himself. Passages such as these reminded me of the very best of the funny, reflexive style presented in Flann O’Brien’s Swim-Two-Birds. This is a humor notably lacking, to me anyway, in Notes from Underground. One scene, in which the narrator has made a small, red-herring sack from a crumpled-up piece of paper, reads thusly:
A few minutes later the policeman comes along, rapping his iron heels on the paving stones and peering on all sides…he stops and gazes at it. It looks so white and precious lying there, perhaps a tidy little sum, eh? A tidy little sum of silver coins?… He picks it up. Hmm! It’s light, very light. Maybe an expensive plume, hat trim… He opens it carefully with his big hands and peeps inside. I laughed, laughed and slapped my knees, laughed like a madman. And not a sound emerged from my throat; my laughter was feverish and silent… I sat there with tears in my eyes, gasping for breath… I began to talk aloud, told myself the story of the cornet, aped the poor policeman’s movements… (57).
Hamsun’s unique gift to us is the humanity in the madman, the knowledge that it could be any of us, laughing silently in the street, talking to ourselves – the smartest, the hardest-working, the funniest (anyone, really, but the wealthiest. But what else is new in this era of global capitalism.) The ornery boy inside the narrator, humorous and perceptive, is interwoven seamlessly with the ostensible madman that must be witnessed by others passing along the street. Reader discomfort guaranteed.
This Boy’s Life – Tobias Wolff
7 / 10
I like to think of myself as coming from Tobias Wolff’s literary lineage. Not in any relevant matter, such as style or theoretical camp, but in the sense of academic lineage: my last creative writing professor was taught by Wolff at Stanford, and I enjoy sheltering the fantasy that this bodes well for my literary life also. The famed George Saunders, also taught by Wolff at Syracuse, discusses Wolff’s mentorship and influence with awe (and great humor) in a recent New Yorker article. In other words, the man is a living legend.
You may (more likely) have heard of this title in the context of the 1993 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, which was based on the book. In a nutshell: after his parents divorce, Wolff’s brother stays with their well-off father, while young Toby gets toted across the country by quirky, hapless Mom in a seat-of-the-pants venture that leads them to Chanook, Washington. Toby’s new stepfather, Dwight, proceeds to torment the rebellious youth for the remainder of the tale.
Despite the fame, I had only experienced Wolff’s work firsthand by way of his most famous short story, “Bullet in the Brain,” which is often taught in beginning-fiction classes as an example of a particularly innovative short story structure. This Boy’s Life was different; traditional, personal, familiarly Americana. I enjoyed the book, as a bottom line here. Wolff’s misadventures and growing pains are universally relatable, validated by his looming eventual success. Wolff’s memory for specific events is remarkable, his unflinching portrayal of himself cause for reflection on the less-flattering aspects of one’s own childhood. Most of all, there was a sense that I liked the author (which, if you’ve read Nabokov, you will understand is a feeling that does not necessarily accompany fine work).
On the flip side, my consideration of the prose found it to be stylistically unremarkable. However, I’m of the opinion that the understated will always present more elegantly, and can forgive this much. My main complaint, which I think is fairly damning for a memoir, is that I feel there could be more depth and subtlety in the character sketches provided re: the persons of interest. Toby himself is a bit opaque; his interior life is one of terror and escapism, while his acts, somewhat counter to this, denote carefree delinquency and pluck. Dwight, the Antagonist, is just too easy, a looming, petty, abusive antagonist to Toby and his mother’s lives.
Do I doubt that these relationships functioned as described? Not at all – and it’s not as if holding a memoir to verifiably factual accounting is the point anyway. I simply see that Wolff seems to lack the motivation, for one reason or another, to delve into the particulars. All we know about Dwight than that he is ‘evil’ purely for the sake of it and does dangerous, cruel things on a regular basis. It’s a bit too Cinderalla/stepmother-ish for me. Of course we’re against Dwight. There’s no fun, no winning the reader over, in this depiction. We know where we stand here, beginning to end.
Wolff’s goal may, in any case, have been in the broader strokes here; the book does not suffer debilitatingly from this approach. Toby is likeable, honest, familiar. This Boy’s Life was a solid read, well-paced and entertaining; Wolff is not a bad literary godfather to have.
Life & Times of Michael K – J.M. Coetzee
3.5 / 10
I’ve had Coetzee recommended to me several times now, by people (men) whose literary opinions I trusted so much that even after reading Disgrace, I somehow decided that I needed to confirm that Coetzee and his writing irritated me to no end. Disgrace, which a certain bitch media article sums up beautifully (this one’s short, I promise), was at least a page-turner. Would this terrible man ever come to display some glimmer of a redeemable quality? Would he come to an epiphany (dear god, even some kind of deathbed conversion or other endgame deus ex machina) re: his selfish ways?
The answer, as you may have guessed, is no. What I can say in some kind of theoretical defense of Coetzee himself is that conflating the main character, or the narrator, with the author is a Fiction 101 faux pas. Coetzee is a Nobel Prize Winner, Patron Saint of Reclusive Artistic Piety, Known Vegetarian, Towering Modern Literary Figure. He’s indubitably putting this all forth in some kind of carefully calculated display of irony, enlightening us all about how terrible some people can be, what solipsistic illusions some people harbor regarding the world and those other people hanging around in it. Right?
Well, string me up for this one, but I don’t really care whether satire is what I should be gleaning from Coetzee’s works or not. Life & Times of Michael K, this month’s mistake on my part, failed to even deliver the misogynist misadventures that led to my completing Disgrace (albeit in a state of horrified fixation). This is the first book in many months that I’ve simply considered not finishing. I can’t say that the writing itself is poor – nor would I say that about Disgrace – but I can say that it’s not good enough to compensate for an absolute lack of compelling events, characters or even a basic driving life-force. It reads as a husk of what it could have been.*
The main, title character is a black man this time – and Coetzee, rather than projecting a cacophony of stereotypes onto him (as he did onto the main female characters in Disgrace), seems instead to have opted for the preferable, but numbingly insipid, alternative of simply refusing him a personality at all. He somehow seems to apply here the same infuriatingly patronizing narration to the Black South African Male Experience as he did to the White South African Female Experience in Disgrace. Does being a white man preclude Coetzee the right to portray these experiences? Of course not (to my mind). But the deep permeation of the ironical in his literary concoction makes this work a bitter pill to swallow; and not for the justifiable end of “readerly (or writerly) growth.” What do we learn about humanity from this? Nothing about personal agency, nothing about humanity, kindness, intelligence.
Well, what did we learn from apartheid, one might counter? I’m not asking for a fuzzy, revisionist story of redemption (and it is, of course, worth noting that the book was published in 1983, well before the end was in sight). I simply have difficulty believing that Coetzee in particular is the best one to tell us that hopeless apathy is what we should take away from the black South African populace and history, especially when his mode of saying so denies the main character human completeness. Say what you will about the repercussions of living in the apartheid state, living in a perpetual war zone (Coetzee certainly has, stating that “literature from SA resembles the literature one would expect from people in jail”) but If Coetzee does indeed have something even remotely human to say to us, he insists on conveying it in a pompous, roundabout manner with little aesthetic enjoyment to help get the medicine down. I’ll not be embarking on another of his thankless journeys.
The Sound of Waves – Yukio Mishima
8 / 10
The Japanese canon continues with this romantic novel by Yukio Mishima, an equally romantic real-life figure who ended his own life by seppuku in 1970. The novel follows Shinji, a young, poor fisherman on a small island, as he comes into his own. This largely involves facing the challenges presented by a forbidden love: namely, Shinji’s romance with Hatsue, the daughter of a wealthy man on the island. Shenanigans ensue, of course.
True to the predictability of the romance novel, this was a calming, relaxed read. The translation read elegantly, and the narrative pacing flowed much more naturally than Kawabata’s (thus far, my attempts to string together a cohesive stylistic timeline of Japanese narration leave much to be desired).
The story arc and style are traditional ones, to be sure. But while there may not be much suspense underlying the main characters’ fates, there are subtle divergences from tradition that showcase Mishima’s innovative narrative skill. The last sentence in particular is an unsettling end, a hint that Mishima has more in his sights than simply recreating the romance. I don’t know that he necessarily succeeds at a totally subversive style, but I’ll be looking out for more of his stuff in the future to see how his career progressed (perhaps The Sea of Fertility tetralogy). Suggestions, anyone?
Camping Out – Ernest Hemingway
A shout-out to my lovely mother for hand-delivering this installation of the Applewood “American Roots” series straight from Hemingway’s Estate in Key West, Florida. The book is a 16-page adaptation of Hemingway’s essay that originally appeared in Toronto Star Weekly in 1920, and reflects his early thoughts on “roughing it.” Given my own obsession with backpacking (and impending thru-hike of the AT), this was an essential addition to my library.
No rating is really pertinent here, for my purposes with this blog, as Hemingway’s thoughts on camping are legendary, immortalized through the Nick Adams stories as well as others, and a 16-page accounting of them is well-worth imbibing under any circumstances – even just grabbing the PDF. (As always, though, I find the hard copy to be a thing of beauty. Thanks, Mom.)
The White Album – Joan Didion
7.5 / 10
I can finally, finally, glimpse a crack in Didion’s ostensibly genius and impeccably cool exterior. Not a big crack, but enough to view her as a human being instead of a machine of perfect writerly execution. The White Album is one of her best-known works; yet the book didn’t quite live up to my expectations after reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem and some other books of hers (both fiction and non-).
The title essay, granted, is excellent, beginning with the fabled line: “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Written over a period of ten years, “The White Album” reads, as does this collection holistically, as a sort of epitah for the late sixties / early seventies. In her rendering, Didion touches on: Huey Newton’s speaking style, an excerpted clinical analysis of her mental health, the recording methodology of the Doors, and her own mother-in-law. Somehow, she weaves these strands together in a gorgeous delineation of the fallacy of narrative. Knowing that coming to this conclusion has been as devastating for Didion as for even the more sentimental of us is some small comfort in the face of the ambivalent world she describes. This essay is what the form is capable of.
“The White Album,” dazzling as it is, is of the quality I have come to expect from Didion. Yet the detached, even disjointed presentation of seemingly disparate subject matters, one of Didion’s MO, is in many cases here stitched together with less than her usual elegance. Several of the essays are only a few pages long, the inklings of what could have been much longer and more thorough works. And, as basically a disciple of hers, I felt a little cheated. I want to see JD unwind the intricacies of Black Panther Party meetings (or anything, really), with much greater detail than she does here. There are a few longer, pillar pieces that support the collection, but many more that feel like inessential trimmings designed to placate. Worst of all, her essay on feminism, “The Women’s Movement,” reads dated at best. It is with mixed emotion that I am forced to conclude Didion’s fallibility in any capacity.
Granted, this is all within the context that JD is one of the greatest stylists of her time, and that the shorter essays are the kind of attenuated thought-terrariums that (only) great writers and thinkers can pull off; the weakest pieces in here could stand up to much longer analyses from any intelligent journalist. Yet I can’t help hoping that in the next collection of hers I (inevitably) read, I’ll find something more like what drew me to Didion in the first place: the long-form, the righteous confidence that her own interest in a topic justified thirty pages or so, and the willingness to defend her opinion stoically, personally, and methodically, with an incisiveness most writers would kill for.
I do note that the post for next month (August), is actually “due” rather soon. Given my own failings in terms of my summer reading list, I may do a short update or simply wait to combine with September; in either case, enjoy your own end-of-summer reads (even, and especially, on vacation). Hope this list helps.
Peace & solidarity, all.